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World air links. © INRA, created by Michael Markieta [spatialanalysis]

Open access publishing is the future!

Open access: free for who?

Open access publishing, which gives readers free access to information, ensures the widest exposure. There are several ways of doing this, but in today’s changing publishing environment, understanding it all is sometimes tough. Here is an overview of current options and pitfalls to avoid.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Emma Morton Saliou
Updated on 02/02/2017
Published on 12/16/2013

The traditional method: reader-pay model

The traditional model is based not on free access but on paid subscriptions. An author submits his or her article for free to a publisher, who arranges a peer review of the work, its publication (in print and/or electronic versions) and distribution. It is the reader, via a research institute, who pays to read the paper. With a subscription ‘wall’ in the way, such a system does not ensure the largest readership possible.  A sharp rise in the number of publications and cost of subscriptions makes it increasingly difficult for the libraries of research institutes to subscribe to all the journals, despite how useful these would be for the bibliographical work of scientists (1).

The Gold model: author-pay model

Choosing open access means reaching the greatest number of readers possible: the scientific community, civil society, professionals and developing countries. If he or she opts for a publisher, an author (or the research institute or funding body in the case of a project) pays the publication costs (which vary from 500 to 5,000 euros!). The paper is published directly online in open access format. Like pay-to-read journals, open access journals are submitted to a peer review process.  Most publishers (six control nearly the entire market) have developed two types of journals.

A database of open access electronic journals (nearly 10,000 titles) exists.

The Green model

Alternatively, an author may opt for the traditional (reader-pay) model and later add his or her paper to an open, online archive. Most publishing contracts contain strict clauses, however: the strictest prevent an author from archiving even the submitted first draft; the most lenient allow the published version of a paper to be archived following an embargo period which varies depending on the (traditional) publisher. During this time, the journal has exclusive rights to the paper, postponing public access to research results. Archiving rights (pre-print/ post-print versions, embargo duration) are distinguished using colour categories for each publisher. These categories are listed on a specialised web site.

Physicists can use an open archive called ArXiv, which organises peer reviewing after a paper is published, on a volunteer basis, and allows scientists to post comments. This one-of-a-kind archive was the first to appear, in 1991, at the University of New Mexico Los Alamos. There have been several identical initiatives in the life sciences sector which until now haven’t worked, although a new archive, Biorxiv, which is based on ArXiv, has just been launched.  Generally speaking, scientists within the life sciences community are attached to the peer review system overseen by scientific publishers.

All that glitters...

The author-pay approach of the gold model has driven the creation of purely profit-based journals, upsetting a peer review system which acts as an initial filter against incorrect data and study methods. ‘Predator’ publishers, often based in India, the U.S. or China, take advantage of the vital need of scientists to publish their work, and accept any paper, as long as the author pays. In October 2013, a journalist from Science magazine exposed these practices by purposely submitted a ludicrous paper to 304 e-journals: 157 of them accepted it (2). Though the open access principle itself is not to blame for this anomaly, the author-pay system no doubt contributes to the problem.

Green model: getting rights right

Before depositing his or her paper in an open access archive, an author must look at the contract signed with the publisher. If the latter holds the rights to the paper (which is usually the case for long-standing, well-known traditional publications), the author must be aware of any conditions imposed by the publisher. Gold system open-access journals allow authors to share their results with a wide audience without restriction.

As we have seen, nothing is simple in scientific publishing – a rapidly changing world that is moving inexorably toward open access becoming the norm. As things stand, it is difficult to reconcile free access for the reader, lower costs for the author, and the certainty of a publication’s quality via qualified peer review panels. The Green model comes closest to the goal of free access, but open archives are needed which offer a legitimate editing process and peer review, rather than sites which simply archive papers previously published in journals. In other words, there is a need to incentivise revision and establish a real open-access publishing pole, which requires a strong – and necessarily expensive – commitment on the part of organisations and research institutes to control how their research work is published.

(1) Subscription rates increase between 4-15% per year, according to the Head Curator for negotiations with publishers at the Couperin Consortium, which represents the majority of France’s academic libraries.
(2) See article in Science, and analysis (in French) in Libération, 4 October 2013.

INRA initiatives

INRA, which signed the Berlin Declaration in 2005, has launched initiatives based on various open access models:

  • „Green model: ProdInra, an institutional open archive, contains published and unpublished research results, in compliance with publishing rights. INRA uses ProdInra to build theme-based archives, including: VOA3R (Agriculture, Environment, Nutrition, Aquaculture), Organic Edunet (Agroecology) and, since 2007, the national CNRS-funded  HAL archive(hyper-articles-online).
  • Gold model: INRA supports a project led by two open-access publishers (BioMed Central and PloS), by collecting a flat-rate subscription fee which, in return, lowers per-article publishing costs for INRA authors by 10-15%.
  • INRA owns two open-access journals: Genetic Selection Evolution and Veterinary Research, which are published by BioMed Central. Authors pay approximately 1,000 euros per submission.

Tools for researchers

INRA’s Scientific and Technical Information Division (IST) offers different services to help scientists navigate the publication process: